What we have here is a trend. So far the trend is bordered by two films about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Hotel Rwanda (2004) and Beyond the Gates (2007). What unites the total of seven films is the dark continent of Africa. Each film brings to the heat and ground of Africa the problem that's at the root of theodicy—that is, the problem of evil. In the midpart of the 20th century, the problem progressive Hollywood films confronted was American racism; the social-problem films of the 21st century confront an abstract evil. These films ask: How can a God allow so much evil to exist? Is evil simply human and apart from God? Is God even in the world? The hero in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio, says of Africa: "God left this place long ago." Borrowing the wisdom of the book of Job, the priest in Beyond the Gates says of Africa: "God is here with these people, with their suffering." According to Hollywood, the best place to see if there's an absolute good and an absolute evil is the cradle of mankind.

Beyond the Gates is more realistic than Hotel Rwanda because it was filmed in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali—the other was shot in South Africa, and bizarrely opens with a South African pop song, Yvonne Chaka Chaka's "Umqombothi" (Rwanda is a part of the French-speaking Africa, whereas Chaka Chaka's music is part of the English-speaking Africa). Even the geography and architecture of Hotel Rwanda has a weak correspondence with reality. In Beyond the Gates, on the other hand, we get to see the actual location (the roads, the homes, shops, schools, churches) of the last massive human catastrophe of the 20th century. In every frame we feel (and nearly see) the spirits undone by that tremendous surge of violence. And you leave the theater with the certainty that the day the air and light of Kigali is cleared of those ghosts will not arrive in this century. The hauntedness of Beyond the Gates is the power it has over Hotel Rwanda.

In terms of structure, characters, and themes, the films are the same. Both posit reason against evil. In Hotel Rwanda, reason is played by Don Cheadle, a cosmopolitan manager of an international hotel; in Beyond the Gates, reason takes the form of John Hurt, a priest who runs a Catholic school and mission. Reason (Cheadle and Hurt) is also love—a love of humanity, a love of order and peace, a love supreme. The confrontation that generates the drama is between a supreme love and a supreme evil. If the love of all love (European humanism) can overcome the evil of all evils (Africans who have totally gone bananas) then it can overcome anything, and that is the core message of these films. Humans can, must, overcome anything. Beyond the Gates, like Hotel Rwanda, ends with hope.

Not all of the films in this trend have reason as the main character. Lord of War, The Last King of Scotland, and Blood Diamond have instead a Kurtz—a white man like Conrad's, hanging on the edge of reason, about to fall into an abyss of savagery. This is why in Blood Diamond it's meaningful that DiCaprio plays a white African—his weak rational (white) side is dominated by a stronger irrational (African) side. An African side, moreover, that is fit to handle the violent business of finding and selling "conflict diamonds" in the worst cities and jungles of the world. Reason, a journalist played by Jennifer Connelly, and love, played by Djimon Hounsou, fight to bring human order to DiCaprio's conflicted soul. In this trend of Hollywood films, only men can be evil, or succumb to evil. Women, like Connelly in Blood Diamond, or Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener, or Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter, are always reasonable and kind, the light in the heart of darkness.

From the gospel of Thomas: "Jesus said, 'If the flesh came into being because of spirit, it is a wonder. But if spirit came into being because of the body, it is a wonder of wonders. Indeed, I am amazed at how this great wealth has made its home in this poverty.'" This poverty (human bodies, insects, death, sickness, shit) has for Hollywood its main home in Africa. And in these films, what must rise from this extreme poverty is the wealth of the human spirit.

charles@thestranger.com

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